Government Funds Shielded Colleges From Extinction. In 2022, the Stakes Will Change.

In the beginning of what would soon become known around the world as the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders in the higher education industry began to fear the worst. Within a few days, colleges and universities around the country announced their respective continuity plans to provide teaching and student support externally. Using a range of digital communication technologies, messaging platforms and learning management systems, the institutions were able to continue operating and maintain their students’ market share.

In honor of the work of several institutions that successfully turned to the online space, in the fall of 2020, NASPA contacted researchers, edtech experts, and higher education professionals, including myself, to advise them on what became the Virtual Innovation Awards: Excellence in Delivering Virtual Student Services. Based on more than 100 submissions from colleges and universities, NASPA’s team of advisors selected 10 institutions to reward using the following eight categories: Connection Building, Holistic Approach, Ingenuity, Equity Focus, Scalability and Sustainability, Strategic Technology Use, Collaboration and Data Use.

But the reality is that not all colleges were lucky enough to show such flexibility. Some began to fold under pandemic conditions. And while we who work at institutions that have held on so far may be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief, that would be a mistake. As I will explain, even award-winning colleges are not necessarily safe from the challenges that higher education still faces.

After years of economic struggle, MacMurray College in Illinois announced its closure early, followed by Becker College in Massachusetts and Mills College in California. However, Mills has since merged with Northeastern University. Such closures, mergers and other shifts to try to achieve sustainability are reflected in reports from the National Center for Educational Statistics. Since the 2018-2019 school year, the number of institutions eligible for federal financial aid has dropped from 6,281 to 6,063, or 3.47 percent. For the public two-year high school sector, the number of institutions fell from 963 to 920, or 4.46 percent.

Despite this unfortunate reality, financial experts predicted that many more institutions would close or merge than ended up doing so. The derailment of such an accident is largely due to the urgent action of lawmakers to save American colleges and universities.

The CARES law, which Congress signed into law in March 2020, earmarked $ 2.2 trillion to help Americans adversely affected by the pandemic. Of these funds, approximately $ 14 billion was designated as the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund or HEERF. Then, in January 2021, the U.S. Department of Education announced an additional $ 21.2 billion tranche for higher education. Most recently, in March, the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund III, known as the U.S. Rescue Plan, was signed into law, providing $ 39.6 billion in support to higher education institutions to serve students and ensure learning continues during the pandemic. In total, since March 2020, higher education has received $ 74.8 billion dollars to remain operational and service students, while also providing emergency assistance to students affected by COVID-19.

Across the country, colleges were given an economic exposure to what might otherwise have been a death sentence, preventing what could have been an insurmountable increase in institutional closures and mergers. Terms such as “innovation” and “resilience” were used to describe the actions of many institutions using HEERF, while terms such as “disruption” were used to describe time. Although I believe that COVID-19 is an unprecedented disruptor and accelerator in higher education, I also believe that an important question remains unanswered. Are higher education really renewed and transformed to meet the essential needs and expectations of the students? Or did higher education simply find an “innovative” and “resiliant” means of maintaining business as usual?

Moments before the pandemic took hold, a national conversation took place about the declining public confidence in higher education and ways to deal with it. HEERF funds undoubtedly removed barriers for students to continue their studies and alienated the success of fair students for those hard hit by COVID-19. But in some conversations I have had with other college presidents around the country, I have heard expressed the belief that HEERF has helped restore public confidence in higher education – an idea that I wholeheartedly consider to be false. Public mistrust has at best been pacified by how colleges have used HEERF funds, and confidence in higher education is far from restored.

According to recent guidelines from the Ministry of Education, the higher education institutions must, as a rule, use their HEERF grants within one year from the date on which the department has processed funds for each specific grant. For many institutions, this means that HEERF funds will cease to be available in the year 2022. How will the institutions serve the students when the extra support ceases? How will the institutions find funds to provide student support and education at the level of students’ expectations? How will institutions work creatively with industry to develop new avenues for employment or find groundbreaking means to promote social and economic mobility? All with the aim of breaking down social barriers that have banned success for our various students and their communities.

The success of fair students requires that institutions embrace new ideologies and methodologies for how they serve students. Our communities demand that institutions stop using slogans and marketing campaigns to mask the unresolved gaps in processes and services provided. Time demands that institutions stop being initiative-driven and start being mission-driven. Basically, it means making an entire commitment through strategic planning and mission alignment to ensure long-term, continuous improvement of student support that is consciously integrated into the institution’s structure. The future of higher education, and the restoration of public confidence in it, depends on colleges and universities embracing the whole of being student-centered institutions and running college business as usual.


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